Casanova+Hernandez Architects helps Albania strengthen its cultural heritage

The shifting frame pattern of the façade elements is a reference taken from a camera’s closing aperture. Photo Christian Richters

SHKODËR – The Albanian government is seeking to improve the country’s cultural sector through the repurposing of built heritage, in order to maintain and promote the nation’s history. Ideally, at the same time, a photography collection of national significance needed relocating. Both aims were met with Casanova+Hernandez’ design for the Marubi National Photography Museum and Archive located in the north of Albania.

The Marubi photography collection of 150,000 negatives was acquired by the Albanian government in 1970. It documents an important part of Albanian history, spanning three generations of the Marubi family. The Italian painter and photographer Pietro Marubi emigrated from Piacenza to Shkodër, Albania in 1858, and from that moment onwards he began documenting his new home country. Pietro’s assistant Kel Marubi and Kel’s son Gegë continued the family’s legacy up until the government’s acquisition. The collection documents the bourgeoisie, royalty, landscape and turmoil, among other things. Its significance made a photography museum an ideal programme for the government’s development agenda.

Selecting the existing building seems to have been a non-debatable subject. The building is located in Shkodër, where the Marubi collection was produced. The town is one of Albania’s most important and oldest cultural centres. Architect Kolë Idromeno, who was a student of Pietro Marubi, designed the original building that was to be repurposed. Lineage and location made the selected building a fitting context for the housing of the Marubi collection.

With the building and programme selected, a competition was then held for the new museum’s design. The brief aimed at relocating the existing collection into a contemporary space. Dutch architecture firm Casanova+Herandez won the competition with the help of curator Kim Knoppers, of Foam Museum in Amsterdam. Together, architect and curator re-framed the collection for public consumption.

Aesthetically this museum establishes itself as photography-centred. The shifting frame pattern of the façade elements and interior shelving is a reference taken from a camera’s closing aperture. This is applied not only to the built objects but also the museum’s brand identity and the organisation of rooms in the upper exhibition space.

The design is spatially made up of five boxes that are inserted into parts of the existing building. The first box encountered is the showcase landmark located in the street, providing an information point, enticing visitors while demarcating entry. The architect acts sensitively toward the historic façade by detaching the box, allowing visitors to appreciate it independently from the contemporary intervention. The only alteration to the elevation is the minor modifications to the fenestrations, increasing transparency with glazing to connect the street with the reception and function spaces.

A larger box is pushed to the back of the building and houses circulation and museum services downstairs, with archives and a digital laboratory upstairs. Working with the existing form, this box is placed to enclose a space creating a courtyard that is looked out upon by surrounding spaces.

The main exhibition of the museum is upstairs in the refinished existing space. The three final boxes are executed here to frame the museum’s permanent collection. The architect describes these displays as an ‘interactive chrono-thematic exhibition’ where information and education are combined in a multisensory experience. The Marubi legacy is displayed chronologically on the outside of the boxes. Whilst inside there are representations of the spaces where the three generations of production took place: the photo studio of Pietro Marubi, the darkroom of Kel Marubi and Gegë Marubi’s archive.

Casanova+Hernandez executed an architectural outcome which manages history, built heritage, contemporary design and the dichotomy between conservation and display. Hopefully the project becomes a precedent for the Albanian government’s developments toward a strongly represented national culture.

Photos courtesy of Casanova+Hernandez

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